The safest place in town

This story appears in the June 13, 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

IT'S SPRING TRAINING FOR THE JAGUARS of CBTIS 128, a high school in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Beneath the lights, the school's starting quarterback, Raul Parra, tosses a football back and forth with the second-string QB. The 18-year-old Parra is geared-up and ready to go: helmet, pads, laminated play sheet tucked inside a black elastic sleeve on his left forearm. But first comes the obvious question.

"So," says a visiting reporter, "can you show me your bullet holes?"

"Sure," Parra says, bending over to pull up the bottom of his bright-gold football pants. One scar traces a path across the front of his right leg, from the inner knee, where the bullet entered, to the outer knee, where it exited. Parra points to another scar on his right calf. "This one broke my leg," he says. Then he gestures to his foot. "I got hit there, too."

Parra smiles and goes back to throwing spirals. Near midfield, receivers run pass patterns under the watchful eye of head coach Fernando Gallegos, a 47-year-old bull of a man, with thick shoulders and a solid trunk. The Jaguars' facilities are impressive, built for the school last year as a gift from Mexico's president, Felipe Calderon, in recognition of the team's great accomplishments -- and sacrifices. A tall cinder-block wall surrounds the field, protecting the players from the dangers on the other side.

"Yes," Gallegos says, "this is a beautiful field." He pauses, stares down at the deep green of the artificial turf, then shakes his head. "But what it cost in money is nothing compared to what it cost in blood."

On Jan. 30, 2010, at 11:20 p.m., seven cars rolled up a dark Juarez street. One car stopped at each end of Via Portal, blocking off the small thoroughfare. The other vehicles, carrying four men each, continued to the middle of the block, where they stopped in front of three houses, numbered 1306, 1308 and 1310.

Inside the three houses, about 40 friends and relatives were celebrating the 18th birthday of CBTIS student Manuel Rubio, including a dozen players from the school's football team. The men who emerged from the cars carried AK-47s and other guns. "They herded all of the men and boys into the back corner here, and then they began shooting," says Manuel's mother, Marisela Rubio. "Blood was everywhere -- on the floor, on the walls." (Her son escaped; her husband was executed.)

After five minutes, the killing was over. Among the 16 dead were two of the Jaguars' team leaders: Rodrigo Davila, an offensive tackle, and Juan Carlos Medrano, a star QB and cornerback. Both were 17. Three other players were severely injured; the rest fled by jumping through an open window. Although the gunmen's motives remain unclear, local police believe the incident might have been a case of mistaken identity. One theory is that the shooters confused the Jaguars, reigning Class-AA champions, with a local drug cartel known as Los Artistas Asesinos, or "Double A."

Sadly, this kind of violence is all too familiar in Juarez, a city of 1.5 million located just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, and home to a robust drug trade that supplies the U.S. with a steady flow of marijuana, cocaine and pills. Since the beginning of 2007, more than 6,000 people have been killed in cartel-related conflicts, a murder rate that makes Juarez one of the deadliest cities in the world.

In the middle of this danger zone, Gallegos has pulled off a near miracle: He's built one of the most successful high school football programs in the region, and he's made the Jaguars' field the safest place in town. The coach, a star fullback and linebacker for CBTIS 128 in the early '80s, played semipro ball in Mexico and now runs a thriving auto repair shop. After budget issues forced the school to drop football in 1988, he resuscitated the program in 2003, with a lot more than winning in mind. "We were losing these kids to the street and to the drug cartels," he says. "I felt I had to do something."

And football, not soccer, was his method of choice. "American football is about courage and discipline, respect and humility," Gallegos says. "More than in any other sport, a team has to work together. Every position on the field is important. There are lessons in that."

A central tenet of being a Jaguar: Education comes first. "If you don't keep up with your school work, then you're off the team," Gallegos says. (CBTIS 128, a school for gifted students, stands for Centro de Bachillerato Technologico Industrial y de Servicios.) Also, every player must do public service. On Saturdays, the team puts in volunteer hours at an abandoned country club that's being converted into an athletic center, replete with an Olympic-sized indoor pool, indoor clay tennis courts and outdoor soccer fields.

The rewards for all that hard work extend beyond the field, where Gallegos' varsity and junior varsity squads have won a combined three league titles over the past eight seasons. "We're like a family," says Missael Beltran, a linebacker who carries a heavier burden than most. Beltran has a bullet lodged against his spine from the night of the party. "The bullet hurts sometimes -- a lot," he says. But what he gains from playing is worth the pain. "We look out for one another, support one another. And because of the work, the competition and time spent together ... and, of course, the tragedy, we have become one."

Gallegos, a husband and father, often clocks 20 hours a day between his auto shop and coaching duties. He oversees other teams at CBTIS 128, including a women's flag football squad. Many of the students come from poor families, so Gallegos has started a fund -- Los Jaguares Jovenes de Bien -- that accepts donations. He has also opened a new car-wash/oil-change business that's run by the Jaguars, who can work there in their free time for extra money.

"We have so much to work for -- and against," Gallegos says. "All of these kids, even the youngest, already know what the different handguns are. They know that the gangsters have better weapons than the police. They have seen kidnappings. They are vulnerable to joining the drug cartels. To combat this, I need to make American football even more appealing. We need to change the image of what a good life is. My motto: Exchange the weapon for a ball."